Longread — 30 Nov 2018 — Christel Vesters

Earlier this year, the renowned scholar and Professor of Visual Art and Knowledge Systems at Malmö Art Academy, Lund University, Sarat Maharaj, visited the Netherlands as the fourth Visiting Fellow in Modern and Contemporary Art. Maharaj presented two public lectures, one in The Hague at the RKD and one in Amsterdam at the Stedelijk. He also spent three full days with a group of students immersed in seminars unpacking the archival consciousness in the arts, the ethics of “living with difference and multiplicity”, and discussing questions of identity and belonging.

Sarat Maharaj is one of those thinkers able to wrap up a whole world of thought in one question, such as: How do we know? Why is something knowledge? Is art knowledge, and something else not? I first came across his writing in 2006. I had been mulling over the relation between art and knowledge, but had hit a dead end. At the time, “artistic research” was emerging as a new field of practice—first in the visual arts, and a few years later also in the academic world. The qualification of “research in the arts” as an academic discipline, kick-started heated debates about its academic merits and its value as a form of knowledge production. However, most discussions became stranded in a deadlock between two opposite convictions: art either is knowledge (and as such it falls short compared to the rigor of science) or it is not (and therefore cannot be understood as knowledge).

In his lectures and writing, Maharaj offered a third position, arguing that art-as-knowledge is neither the same as scientific knowledge, nor its opposite: ignorance.1 Instead, Maharaj claimed that art is its own form of knowing the world, which follows its own rules and constitutes its own system of knowledge. In the last fifteen-odd years a lot has been said and written about the relation between art and knowledge (or, art as knowledge), but few people have been so dedicated to the subject as Maharaj.

Art Practice as a Form of Knowledge Production

“Art is a form of inquiry, of being in the world, of knowing the world and coming up with new ways of knowing that world,” said Maharaj, at the outset of his lecture in The Hague. In the hour and a half that followed, he unfolded his theory on artistic practice as a form of knowledge production that is different from institutionalized forms of knowledge. Or, as he describes it: “art knowledge is both at one with and at odds with other forms of knowledge production […] each has its own set of procedures and processes of getting to know and grasp something.” The way we think about knowledge determines what is and what is not knowledge. But, Maharaj argues, maybe there is not just one, singular form of knowledge, “maybe there are many forms of knowing and knowledge in the world around us.”

Introducing the Sanskrit term Avidyā, Maharaj explains why art knowledge needs to fall outside of the “either/or” binary and should be understood as an “in-between,” a “neither/nor.”2 Throughout his lecture, he uses different examples to describe the nature of art knowledge and art research. As a field of research, art knowledge is not limited by any rules or disciplinary field with which it engages. It does not adhere to the idea of one singular method, and it cannot—and will not—be submitted to the positivist, binary, and clear conceptual categories that dominate the tradition of Western thinking. Resisting any form of logical order or categorization, it is open-ended and associative, pressing us to enter a field of questioning that we have not clearly mapped out.

 Sarat Maharaj in Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, May 30, 2018. Photo: Ernst van Deursen.
Sarat Maharaj in Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, May 30, 2018. Photo: Ernst van Deursen.

In the next part of his lecture, Maharaj moves from what constitutes art knowledge to how it operates. To answer this question, he suggests that we can either follow the rational, deductive reasoning of philosophical logic (‘take a step back, assess, deduct, describe the evidence and prove the argument’), or we can turn to other areas of knowing that are more open open to other dimensions of knowledge such as the emotional, experiential, and intuitive. Maharaj calls the second of these the “soft” approach, based on a colloquial, everyday understanding: “You know how things are; This doesn’t feel right.” It is a way of knowing things equivalent to the “divine knowing” in the Sufi tradition; the “drunken state of knowing” in the Greek tradition of the symposium; Buddha’s renouncing of all faith, doubt, and dogma; or James Joyce’s “knowing Dublin” while in exile.

Audience of lecture Sarat Maharaj in Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, May 30, 2018. Photo: Ernst van Deursen.
Audience of lecture Sarat Maharaj in Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, May 30, 2018. Photo: Ernst van Deursen.
Audience of lecture Sarat Maharaj in Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, May 30, 2018. Photo: Ernst van Deursen.
Audience of lecture Sarat Maharaj in Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, May 30, 2018. Photo: Ernst van Deursen.

To understand the importance of this third position Maharaj asks that we consider the following: while we live in a knowledge society wherein big data, intelligence, and information rule, there seems to be less engagement with questions regarding knowledge-making processes concerning how knowledge is obtained, determined, and on what authority.

These concerns are not just philosophical but about power. When European refugee thinkers arrived in London just before World War II, their “other” science and knowledge was looked upon as askew. It was deemed inferior and in some cases perceived as a threat to the academic establishment, prompting the institutions that safeguarded that tradition to quickly condemn the immigrant thinkers as “pseudo-scientists.” Although Maharaj only introduces this incident as a footnote, the event represents a long history of other knowledges being excluded from the dominant (Western) canon that continues today. In a way, art knowledge has faced a similar question of faith. It has been cast aside as a “lower form of knowledge” or “soft knowledge.”

In a way, the ideas summarized above from his lecture in The Hague, set up the arguments for Maharaj’s second lecture in Amsterdam the very next day. Up until here, his theories predominantly seem to concentrate on questions of a philosophical nature, having very little to do with pressing issues in everyday society. But this is only half the story. In his second lecture described hereafter, the ethical and political ramifications of his theory on “other ways of thinking / thinking otherness” and the tangible impact of a hierarchy of knowledges is explored through a very real case study.

Is Knowledge Color-Blind?

Maharaj’s Amsterdam lecture circled around the question: “Is knowledge color-blind?” In a society where color has (again) become a marker of difference and division, there is no debate about the pertinence of this question. However, the answer is not black and white. As in his first lecture, the question is a proposition, an evocation to think things through.

“Knowledge is always colored, never neutral,” said Maharaj, “although the Western tradition of modern philosophy has made us believe otherwise.” But, as he pointed out the day before, there is not one universal system of knowledge; rather, there are many different knowledge systems, art knowledge being one of them. In this lecture, the question of other knowledges is juxtaposed with that of writing history:

How then are we to write the contemporary, or, the history of the contemporary within a global world? How are we to write an art history that digresses from the restrictions and limitations of chronological and geographical linearity (from Europe to the rest of the world), and does justice to the complexities and knottiness of our contemporary world?

To begin to formulate an answer, Maharaj introduces the concept of the “paleo present.” Just like he uses the Sanskrit term Avidyā to describe this thing (art-knowledge) that doesn't fit into Western philosophical vocabulary, the paleo present is more a thinking tool than a clear and concrete definition. To Maharaj it represents that moment of the “all devouring now,” or, to use one of Joyce’s descriptions, it is the “future of the past.” According to Maharaj, the model of the paleo present is more apt to deal with the complexities of our current moment—a present defined by a growing archival consciousness and a re-evaluation of issues of identity and belonging.

Art history room (kunstgeschiedenislokaal), University of Durban, Prof C Lxxxx History of Art, Salisbury Island. Foto: Kwa-Zulu Archives.
Art history room (kunstgeschiedenislokaal), University of Durban, Prof C Lxxxx History of Art, Salisbury Island. Foto: Kwa-Zulu Archives.

The Apartheid-Era Art History Room

To examine the workings of this archival consciousness in a time of big data and to understand its relation to the idea of multiple knowledge systems, Maharaj takes us back to the art history room at the University of South Africa for Blacks of Indian origin, in Durban. In the 1950s, after the conservative Herstigte Nasionale Party (HNP) won the South African general election in 1948, policies were implemented that would secure the strict racial segregation in all spheres of public life. As part of this “racial ecology” schools and universities were segregated along ethnic lines: there were white and black universities, the latter being further divided into Zulu, Sotho, and Venda, schools for people mixed descent and of Indian origin. The program not only meant the segregation of people, it also meant the division of knowledge and emergence of a hierarchy between these bodies of (cultural and historical) knowledge as every school established its own curriculum. It is against this background that Maharaj poses the question on knowledge as color-blind. Can knowledge production take place when it is segregated by ethnicity?

During his three-day visit to Amsterdam, Maharaj and a group of students from the University of Amsterdam engaged in a “reconstruction” of the art history room. Their only guide was a black-and-white slightly blurred image from the KwaZulu-Natal Archives. The classroom and the curriculum it fostered were unique, said Maharaj. It turned out later, it also was the classroom in which Maharaj received his art history education. Only in an art history room such as this could a multitude of cultural histories be represented simultaneously: a white marble reproduction of a Greco-Roman-Hellenistic bust stood next to a reproduction of an Aztec head; an elongated ebony figurine from Congo eyed a painting by Pieter Bruegel; and a quote from Indian dancer, theosophist, and politician Rukmini Devi shared the blackboard with a series of Islamic calligraphic tiles. Art history rooms at other universities would merely have educated their students in their “own ethnic” cultural history.

Maharaj did not choose this room for its historical curiosity; many of the issues and questions it raises are similar to those addressed in contemporary debates on postcolonialism and multicultural societies. Regarding the multiplicity of cultures presented in the room, Maharaj asks: what idea—or worldview—does it promote? Was it the Apartheid regime's “evolutionary ladder” of cultures, with Europe at the top? Or was it a display to see how all interrelate, connect, and interconnect? The latter is very much the same as the liberal idea of the “multicultural rainbow” in which “separate but equal cultures” peacefully coexist. According to Maharaj this is an illusion because in the end some cultures are more equal than others. Did the Durban Universities art history room perform a more subversive view of our multicultural society?

Maharaj’s art history room functions as a catalyst to address the more fundamental issues regarding today’s complex multicultural world. Maharaj said:

In today’s society, multiculturalism, has been simplified by segregating cultures and categorizing identities (black, white, Indian, female, homosexual etc.). And multiculturalism is practiced in a far too simplistic way by simply including “the other” into existing cultural categories (as for example the Western canon of art history).

But just as “art-knowledge” does not fit in to the existing categories of scientific logic and needs to be understood as its own system of knowledge, a contemporary global, multicultural society also requires a new model.

The Art History Room may hold the key to this third way, performing a more subversive take on the co-existence of multiple cultures in time and space by bringing them into translation with each other, creating “a sense of a global rub, a process of heterogenesis, the open-ended play of critical cultural difference.” This is the challenge we are faced with today, as cultural institutes, educational institutes, curators, artists, art historians, and educators: how do we show multiplicity? How do we get “the globe” together? How do we force this translation and produce a new language?’

It is not easy to transcribe Maharaj’s ideas into a simple set of arguments and conclusions. Although his mode of address is eloquent and precise, his thinking favors detours, drifting along different cultures, a hop-skip-jump through history, combining philosophy with everyday observations. In a way his lectures embody exactly that which he describes as the objective of art-knowledge: to go beyond the fixed categories of the Western-centric tradition of thinking; and to not just talk about moving away from the teleological narrative, but to actually do it and explore.

The Visiting Fellowship Program was initiated in 2015 by the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, the Netherlands Institute for Art History (RKD), and the University of Amsterdam. Previous visiting fellows include Martha Rosler (2017), Claire Bishop (2016), and W. J. T. Mitchell (2015).

About Sarat Maharaj

Sarat Maharaj was born in South Africa and educated there and in the United Kingdom. He is Professor of Visual Art and Knowledge Systems at Malmö Art Academy, Lund University, and Research Professor at Goldsmiths, University of London where he was Professor of Art History and Theory from 1980 to 2005. Maharaj was the Rudolf Arnheim Visiting Professor at Humboldt University, Berlin in 2001 and 2002 and a Fine Art research fellow at the Jan Van Eyck Academie, Maastricht, from 1999 to 2001. His research focuses on Marcel Duchamp, James Joyce, and Richard Hamilton. Recent publications include: “The Jobless State: Work, Global Assembly Line, Indolence” in Work, Work, Work: A Reader on Art and Labour (2012); “What the Thunder Said: Toward a Scouting Report on 'Art as a Thinking Process'“ in Art as a Thinking Process: Visual Forms of Knowledge Production (2012); “'Hungry Clouds Swag on the Deep’: Santu Mofokeng at Kassel 2002” in Chasing Shadows (2011); The Sarat Maharaj Reader (2010); and “'Small Change of the Universal': Beyond Modernity?” in British Journal of Sociology (2010). He was curator of Pandemonium: Art in a Time of Creativity Fever, Göteborg International Biennial for Contemporary Art (2011) and co-curator of: Art, Knowledge and Politics, 29th São Paulo Biennale (2010); Farewell to Post-Colonialism, Guangdong Museum of Art, Guangzhou (2008); (with Richard Hamilton and Ecke Bonk), retinal .optical .visual. conceptual, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam (2002); and Retrospective, documenta11, Kassel (2002).

1. Maharaj has elaborated on his theory of art as knowledge in various essays and interviews, for instance, “Know-How and No-How: Stopgap Notes on 'Method' in Visual Art as Knowledge Production,” Art & Research: A Journal on Ideas, Contexts and Methods 2, no. 2 (Spring 2009), http://www.artandresearch.org.uk/v2n2/maharaj.html. Last accessed on August 1, 2018.
2. Avidyā derives from the Sanskrit term Vidyā, which means knowledge, as in “to see-know” (I see what you mean). However, Vidyā/Avidyā are not binary opposites; by adding the “ā,” a neutral term is created, “a semi freeze.” Maharaj compares the term to other “middle terms” like moralimmoral.

About the author

Christel Vesters is a curator, writer, and researcher based in Amsterdam. Vesters studied art history and curating in Amsterdam, New York, and London and graduated cum laude from the University of Amsterdam with an MA in Art History. She has an established career in art criticism and curating, and regularly contributes to various international art magazines and art publications.